You’re Not Helping

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A contested election. Out of control pandemic numbers. Unemployment. Turmoil.

These are the times we are living in right now. As I write this, there are more people in the hospital with Covid-19 than at any point in the pandemic. In El Paso, there are more people hospitalized than there are in several states. Grim warnings about the holidays and the danger they pose make our regular family get togethers even more complicated. Everything feels so out of control, because it mostly is.

There are some things we do have control over. One of these is your reaction to those who have family members who are fighting the coronavirus or have a family member who died from it. I can’t promise I have always had the correct reaction to news of this sort, but my own experience with this, and with my experience many years ago when my mother was dying of cancer, helped me understand some of the things you shouldn’t say.

I have sadly listened as friends and family members have recounted some of the callous things people have said to them. “Did they take HCQ? That might have helped them.” “How do you know they really died from Covid? The doctors are lying about it to make money.” Or the always classic, “I don’t think that is what (insert family member’s name here) died from. People are putting that on death certificates because they hate Trump.”

Even if every one of these statements were valid (and I can assure you, they’re not), what in the world would make you think this is comforting to grieving people?

When my mother died from cancer, she was 50. A beautiful, elegant and quiet woman, she really never looked a day over 40. I was 21 when she died, and now that I am older, I understand even better how young she really was and how much of her life was snuffed out by cancer. I remember the words of well meaning friends that, in their efforts to say something comforting, instead said things that were tortuous at the time. For example:

“Your mom looks so good. Surely she isn’t really that sick (said two days before her death).” “Well, you knew her death was coming, right? That must have helped.” “Don’t you think your mom would want you to move on after her death? She wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

I could give you more, but you get the idea. I truly believe all of the things people said were said out of love and trying to help, but the truth is, there are no words, no pat answers, that can make the grief and helplessness better. What most people meant to help usually came off as dismissive. The only things people said that were of comfort were things like, “I love you and your family.” “I’m so sorry.” or, “I thought a lot of your mom. I am praying for you all.”

Relating all of this to the comfort of our friends and acquaintances who are going through Covid in a more personal way than you are: if you truly want to comfort someone, but don’t know what to say: nothing is better than saying something you shouldn’t. Relating how most of the people you know that had Covid were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms only makes things worse. Asking tons of specific questions about treatment is often exhausting to the person answering all of those questions. And if you are going to bring up your own politicized views about covid to a grieving person, just go ahead and slap them in the face while your saying them, because that is exactly what it feels like.

If you really want to help someone, and we now all know someone who has lost a loved one to this disease, try following the mitigation efforts so we can put this behind us. Acknowledge their grief instead of trying to minimize it. Send a card. Show support. If you’re a praying person, pray for comfort for those affected. And try your best not to stick your foot in your mouth and make someone who is already heartsick feel even worse. I can’t promise I will always succeed, but I am going to give it my best effort. I hope you will, too.

Everyday Miracles

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” C. S. Lewis

A couple of evenings ago, I went to Home Depot to purchase some black mulch to lay around our back patio. I paid for the mulch, a deal at 4 bags/$10, then drove around to where all of the mulch, soil, fertilizer, rock, and other assorted garden items are stacked in towers. I pulled up by the mulch, got out and opened the back of my Jeep, and then a funny thing happened.

I started to cry. Tears poured out and ran down my cheeks, and I even sobbed a little.

Why would the sight of mulch bags make me cry? Well, because the very idea that I am buying, loading, and planning to spread mulch all by myself is, well, freaking awesome. It is something that I thought would never happen again.

It was a year ago at this time that I had emergency surgery, and was told that I might not live a year; that my quality of life would be limited. Doctors informed me my particular cancer had no cure, no specific treatment, but that treatment for other cancers would be used even though their effectiveness was minimal. I had been feeling weak before my surgery, and didn’t feel well enough to put mulch out last spring. So here I am, a year later, energetic enough to buy mulch and to make plans for planting flowers, a vegetable garden, and so many of the things I love about this season.

Buying that mulch and using it is an everyday miracle. These miracles surround us, but most of the time we are so busy doing, or working, or just keeping our heads above water that we may miss them if we aren’t paying attention.

It is springtime, and the miracles are here. Perennial plants that I put out many years ago are pushing through the soil, promising beauty and scent. Hummingbirds are starting to return, looking for flowers and feeders full of sugar water. And high schoolers are dressing up for proms in their gorgeous dresses and suits, looking awkward and ridiculously, freshly beautiful at the same time.

Another miracle is that my cancer seems to be dormant, though the doctors are very careful not to say that. So I stay cautiously optimistic, like a student who takes the ACT for the first time and guesses choice “C” for all of the questions they are unsure about. I have today, because tomorrow certainly isn’t promised for any of us, and today is a most ordinary, but wonderful day. Today I can buy 40 pound bags of mulch and plan to spread it on my flowerbeds tomorrow and the next day. Last year at this time, I couldn’t lift anything over ten pounds.

If you know me well, you probably know how much I love hummingbirds. I have a feeder by my front door which I keep filled with homemade nectar. Another miracle: I made nectar and put out my feeder yesterday. This non-event is a miracle because last spring, I attempted to make the nectar while I was still weak from surgery, but was anxious to do something normal. I was pretty sure I could mix together sugar and water and bring it to a boil without much of a problem. I put the saucepan on the stove, and sat down in the recliner to wait for it to come to a boil. What I didn’t count on was my fatigue catching up with me, so I drifted off to a pleasant nap, only to be awakened by the blare of a smoke alarm, billows of smoke, and the sickening smell of burning sugar.

My husband said it was a miracle I didn’t burn down the house. He’s not wrong.

Right now, while the news is so overwhelmingly negative and there seems to be so much darkness in the world, let’s try to find those everyday miracles. I doubt that I will be brought to tears again by a stack of mulch, but there are plenty of other things around to take my breath away.

Here is one last example of an everyday miracle: my husband and I flew to California recently. During a layover in Phoenix, I went into the women’s restroom not long before our flight. I had my phone in my hand, so I set it aside on top of the toilet paper dispenser (I know, bad idea). And, you guessed it– I left my phone laying there when I left. After boarding the plane, I reached into my bag to turn my phone to airplane mode, and realized my mistake. I hurried to the front of the plane and told the flight attendant my dilemma, and she explained that I couldn’t exit the plane then re-board. She offered to send someone to look for it: the pilot! She spoke to the pilot (a woman, by the way), and told her the situation. This fabulous pilot went after my phone without hesitation. She returned triumphantly a few minutes later, my errant phone in hand.

Who says there’s no customer service these days?

My friends, find your everyday miracles. Life is so hard, but beauty and wonder are still there, and we must be sensitive to it. God keeps sending us little winks to help us remember that each day is a gift– even the hard ones.

Love Theory: How a 17-Year-Old-Boy Changed a Community

It is one of the most overused words in the English language: love. We throw this word around like it is completely expendable. On any given day, I might say I love underdogs, mint chocolate chip ice cream, and my husband. The word love covers such a range that sheer size of it sometimes makes it almost meaningless, a cliche that has grown worn from its overuse.

Wyatt Brown had a different idea about love: one that resonated with an entire community, one that spread beyond the town he lived in, and, because of his earnest desire to teach people about his concept of love, his “love theory” as he called it, has infiltrated our town faster than coronavirus.

Wyatt was a high school junior who tragically passed away last November. Even if you didn’t know Wyatt personally, I would wager if you had any contact with him, you would feel as if you had always known him. He radiated warmth with his quick, wry smile and sparkling eyes. Wyatt was a tough softie. He was a fierce competitor in basketball and tennis, but carried a stuffed llama around with him because he said it sparked conversation. He was what most people would label as popular, but popularity was never his goal, or even his desire. What he was, for sure, was as comfortable in his own skin as a high school kid could be.

My husband, who is friends with Wyatt’s dad, heard that Wyatt liked working cattle. He invited Wyatt to go with him to a roundup– the old fashioned kind on horseback with no cattle chutes, where you herd the cattle then get down on the ground, throwing the calves down to vaccinate and castrate them. It is grueling, dusty, bloody work. Wyatt jumped at the chance to do something he liked, even though he didn’t know my husband at all. No matter what he was asked to do, Wyatt didn’t hesitate and gave every ounce of his strength and effort to the work. The only pay for his several hours of dirty, bloody fatigue was lunch, but Wyatt didn’t whine, as many teenagers might have in a similar circumstance. He relished every second, and then slept in the truck all they way home.

A few months before he died, Wyatt came up with his “Love Theory.” He said the only theory to love is love, and his love for people was based on his love for Jesus. For a young man his age to talk so unguardedly, so passionately, about loving his fellow man, and how we all need to do the same, is something I have rarely seen, and I worked with high school students for 35 years. It was this genuine caring for everyone that made Wyatt such a people magnet. His Love Theory evoked a stirring in those who heard about it, and to use the cliche, they loved it.

Winston, Wyatt’s brother, who has a small business making custom t shirts and sweatshirts, collaborated with him to promote Love Theory through a specially designed sweatshirt. They were an immediate hit, and Winston got busy with the production process. The shirts sold out almost immediately.

Then disaster hit, and the unthinkable happened. Wyatt was gone.

Shock and sadness followed, just as one would expect when a beloved young person dies too soon. But within a day or two, the most astonishing thing happened: the whole town began to put Wyatt’s Love Theory to work. Llamas began to appear everywhere– on a restaurant’s windows, and on the Christmas tree at Ada High School, where art students made llama ornaments for every student in the building to hang personally (over 500). Shoe polished llamas popped up on the back windshields of cars. Students began carrying stuffed llamas at basketball games, where both the boys and girls teams wore special t shirts with Wyatt’s number and, what else? Llamas. The hashtag #livelikewyatt began to circulate on social media. Months later, a rival school’s tennis team even had t shirts made in his honor, and wrote in a group post, “We played today to honor a young man from Ada who lived life the right way. We go out and battle other schools, but we are still one big community that cares about each other.”

This is Love Theory in practice.

According to his mom, Christy, Wyatt always wished it were more affordable for students to attend home basketball games. What started as a boy’s desire became possible when the Ada administration allowed all Ada High students to attend home games for free, and they began to pack the stands, often wearing Love Theory or llama shirts.

This is Love Theory in practice.

With all that is going on in the world right now, I have to wonder if we might be better off if some of our young people were in charge of making decisions. Because this I know: if people lived the way Wyatt Brown did, we wouldn’t be witnessing some of the horrors taking place right now in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan and even in our own country. Is that idealistic? Definitely. But if our ideals don’t matter, just what exactly does? At seventeen, Wyatt understood that the world doesn’t change for the better because of hate, wars, complaining, or finger pointing. He knew that love would always save the day.

As we go through life in autopilot, we aren’t always aware of what we are witnessing. I am so thankful to have witnessed Wyatt’s kindness, his wonderful way of living in the moment, and his zeal for all people and loving life in general. I am so grateful to know now what I witnessed: the organic growth of love promoted by an extraordinarily special young man.

If you think one person can’t make a difference, think again. Wyatt impacted so many while he was alive, but is still impacting even more people months after his death. In his honor, I intend to be more present. I plan to help anyone I can, whenever I can. I am going to try to smile at the people I meet even if I don’t feel like it. I am going to show my family and friends that I love them, because Wyatt’s chance to do this was cut short. And I can only hope that by practicing Wyatt’s Love Theory, I can change the world for the better just like he did, and continues to do even though he is no longer here with us physically.

Live like Wyatt. Keep connecting. Keep laughing. Keep loving.

If you would like to donate to Ada High Student Council’s RUSH week project, from which proceeds will go to to the Love Theory Award established in honor of Wyatt Brown, you may contact Shawn Freeman at Ada High School, 580-310-7220.

If The Shoe Were On The Other Foot

There is so much to be shocked by right now: the soaring gas prices, the murderous aggression of Putin, the faces of families fleeing to safety and leaving everything they love and know behind. The endless lines of cars stacked up, desperate to get safely from Ukraine to Poland. Cities reduced to rubble. Russian soldiers left dead and decaying where they have fallen.

There is also, in these most grim times, so much to be inspired by: the comedian turned president, fearlessly leading and uniting a small nation under attack; a Ukrainian grandma giving Russian soldiers sunflower seeds, so that if they die in battle, sunflowers will grow where they fall; a young girl singing, “Let It Go” in a bomb shelter, bringing thunderous silence to the building; ordinary citizens taking up arms to defend their homeland.

I can’t help but wonder, what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if the U.S. were being attacked by a madman like Putin right now?

With all the division in our country right now, it is hard to imagine it going very well. A ridiculously large number of Americans have nothing good or supportive to say about, well, anything right now. Our strategy to aid Ukraine has been too slow. We shouldn’t even help Ukraine. We aren’t helping them enough. We need to send more money for humanitarian aid. We are going to be sorry we got involved at all. And these gas prices! I may not be able to drive my SUV as much as I like!

When we constantly criticize, second guess, and armchair quarterback our leaders, all we are doing is aiding and abetting the enemy. The enemy isn’t Biden. The enemy isn’t the Republican Party. The enemy isn’t even the Russian people. The enemy is Putin.

I’m pretty sure in earlier conflicts in our history, not everyone agreed on what the best approach to the problems and situations would be. But in this age of sound bites, tweets, and unending outrage, America has begun to sound like a mass of toddlers who didn’t get the snack they wanted, kicking, screaming, and threatening not to stop until they have their way.

It is impossible to know how our country would respond to a threat such as the one Ukraine is facing right now. I do know that most of us have been inspired by the grit, courage, and unity of the Ukrainian people. I like to believe we would rise to the occasion if we were in this horrid situation, but it is very hard to visualize because so many are so worried about giving their own solutions, telling the rest of us how our leaders are doing everything wrong, all from the vantage point of a warm, safe home. As my friend Anna Robbins aptly pointed out, some of us have forgotten that we are all on the same team.

Instead of jumping on the sound bite/outrage/criticism bandwagon, perhaps we could try stepping back and giving our leaders a chance to work out these complex problems. Maybe we should just hold our tongues for a bit and see what happens. I don’t work for the State Department, so I am pretty sure I don’t know much about how to solve this. You probably don’t either. I can promise you that posting a hateful meme is not a solution to anything.

This unprovoked, malicious act of aggression makes me anxious, worried, and fearful of what is to come. Screaming my opinion about it doesn’t help anyone, except maybe Putin.

Our country could use a good old fashioned dose of empathy, compassion, and humility. Praying for our leaders and the people who are in harm’s way won’t hurt either. Even if you think things are going in the wrong direction, all of this disunity does nothing but hurt us. We would do well to emulate the Ukrainian people and the unity they have shown in this horrific conflict.

Tucker Carlson: Putin’s Favorite Mouthpiece

Just like most of you, I am sickened and saddened by Putin’s attack on Ukraine. There is literally nothing good a person can say about it. The videos of Russian troops running over cars with Ukrainian citizens inside, footage of missiles and bombs destroying buildings, hospitals and cities across the country are enough to make me lose my hope in humanity. As horrifying as all the coverage of the invasion is, I am encouraged by the resolve the Ukrainian people are showing in the face of this terror and carnage.

Except for a small handful of Republican politicians who are choosing to use these attacks as political fodder, as well as Chinese and North Korean leaders, the entire world has denounced Putin and his aggression. Most of Congress, NATO, the EU and the G7 have been united in their view that Putin is a war criminal for attacking a country without provocation. The Russian people are also showing their outrage about Putin’s invasion, taking to the streets to protest even though it will mean jail time, or worse. Even people who are not particularly Biden fans are standing united with our country in our opposition to this terrible attack.

With one exception: Tucker Carlson.

I have never understood the appeal of Carlson, as I find his nonstop outrage tiresome. He has repeatedly lied to the American people about all sorts of things, but I have pretty much ignored him and others like him whose only real purpose seems to be getting people riled up. But his insistence that we should support Putin and not care about the Ukraine situation is un-American and dangerous, as is the verbally abusing our country while engaged in a foreign conflict. Normalizing this behavior creates divides at a time when our country needs unification more than anything.

Consider the view of U.S. District Court Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, when she found in 2020 that Carlson didn’t commit slander when he accused a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, of extortion, after the National Enquirer bought her story of an affair with Trump then promptly shelved it on his behalf. Fox’s own lawyers successfully made the case that Carlson shouldn’t be taken seriously. She wrote, “Whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson’s statements as ‘exaggeration,’ or simply bloviating for his audience, the conclusion remains the same– the statements are not actionable.” She added, “Fox persuasively argues, that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer arrives with an appropriate amount of skepticism about the statement he makes.”

Now, does Carlson have the right to say the things he says? Of course he does. I believe in freedom of speech, but I also know that all opinions are not based on facts, so a thinking person needs to evaluate what they are hearing and decide whether to listen or to dismiss. Siding with a murderous dictator who poisons his political opponents and attacks a country unprovoked does not deserve our support, regardless of how we might feel about NATO, the EU, or President Biden. Extolling the qualities of Putin as admirable is simply wrong and politically motivated. Let’s stand together in support of Ukraine, and democracies worldwide, as we pray and hope for a swift resolution to this conflict.

Misery, or as she is also known, Ms. Reed

I am coming up on the ten month anniversary of being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. For much of these ten months, my life has been like Groundhog Day– no past, no future, only today. To understand why it has been like this, let me try my best to explain.

First of all, when you are told you are terminal and are basically living in the valley of the shadow of death, your outlook changes. You don’t look at the future, and you don’t want to hear little motivational quotes like, “If you will just have a positive attitude, things will get better,” or, “Things could be worse.” The fear you feel that you are losing your life drives you with one purpose.

Here is a recap of my diagnosis, in case you are unfamiliar: I was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma of the appendix, with carcinomotosis in the peretineum, small intestine, lymph nodes, and pelvic area. My surgeon removed over 40 tumors but said she had to leave at least that many behind as she was unable to reach them. The prognosis was grim: twelve months as a probable end date, but if I was “lucky,” I might make it to two years. Because my cancer is so rare (literally one in a million), no one was doing any real research on how to fight it, and the treatment plan was to attack it with chemo which, according to research, was highly ineffective.

So, I chose to do alternative treatments and hoped for the best. These treatments are research based and have showed promise, but are not FDA approved so doctors cannot prescribe them. I told my oncologist what I was doing and he didn’t try to dissuade me. I told him I wanted to hold off on traditional treatment as long as things moved in a positive direction. He begrudgingly agreed, because I think he believed I was a goner anyway, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

At the six month mark, I had a PET scan that showed no sign of cancer, which was wonderful news, but with an asterisk: there is no “cure” for the kind of cancer I have. The best one can hope for is remission, and my oncologist didn’t use that word either.

This is where Ms. Reed came into my life. When doctors write notes after an office visit or consultation, they typically dictate into a mike and then the notes are transcribed. When my doctor dictated the details of my fabulous clear scan, his take on it was that even though clear, my body had “microscopic metastatic disease” that wouldn’t show on a scan, so there was a high probability that “Ms. Reed” would appear.

Huh?

When I first read the Ms. Reed comment, I giggled a little. I knew it was necessary for doctors to be cautious, but who in the hell was Ms. Reed? And why was she coming to see me?

After some thought, I decided that what should have been in the sentence was the word “misery.” If you know anything about carcinomotosis, the symptoms are horrid: breathing problems, swelling of the ankles and abdomen, ascites, extreme fatigue, and more. He was telling me not to get cocky or think that things were good just because I had a good scan. Nothing like having your proverbial bubble burst.

So, as life marches on, I have to make a choice. I can continue to live in fear, which has helped drive me to do research, to be vigilant in my protocols and in doing everything I can to help myself, but also to feel like I cannot look at the future and plan anything. It’s a terribly hard place to live, because it is like your awareness about everything is heightened, and you spend a considerable amount of time wondering how much time you have left: will I live to see my grandchildren? Should I plan a trip next summer? I would like to plant a garden, but is that a good use of my limited time? There is no handbook, no guide to help me here.

I decided I can’t let fear drive me anymore. Even though the medical community looks at me like I have two heads because I don’t fit any profile they have, I am choosing to try my best to love all of the good moments (which come in waves because my health issues are still pretty severe), and to plan for the near future, which I am telling you, takes more courage than I knew I ever had. Thankfully, I have wonderful support from my family and friends, and have felt the love of God in ways I never knew were possible. I am choosing to spit in Ms. Reed’s face, even though I know she really plans to come back for me.

You may ask, what does all of this have to do with you, the reader? What I can tell you for certain is that no one’s life is untouched by tragedy. There is unspeakable grief in this world that no Bible verse, no maxim, no study makes bearable. There is also indescribable beauty in this world. I feel like I have experienced more of both in the last 10 months than I have for the first 60 years of my life.

For those of you who like to say, “Well, things could be worse,” let me give you a tip: never, ever say that to someone who is grieving a huge loss or is terminally ill. Life is not a contest to see who has the worst circumstances so that we can declare the biggest loser. I have several friends who are also walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and I promise you, words like these help no one. And offering up the wisdom that none of us is promised tomorrow is equally unhelpful: though yes, it is true that anything can happen at any time, until it happens, it is just a philosophical maxim for the unaffected. Acting like you are in the same boat as the person who just received devastating news because you could possibly get bad news yourself minimizes what that person is feeling in a most destructive way. Walking alongside someone in pain, praying for them, showing that you care– these are the things that are so much more helpful than trying to explain how that person can “fix” their situation.

Thank you so much to those of you who have laughed, cried, prayed with, and comforted me through all of this. You have made my life so much richer. I am still here, still spitting at Ms. Reed for now, and as Thoreau put it, living deep and sucking the marrow out of life. It’s an extraordinary place, this life, in spite of the specter of Ms. Reed.

The Gift of the Magi

This is a love story of sorts.

The short story by the same title, written by O. Henry in 1905, showed why the gift of love trumps material gifts. Every single time.

If you aren’t familiar with this story, “The Gift of the Magi” is a story about a young, poor, married couple– Della and Jim– and how they showed each other their love even though they couldn’t scrape together enough cash to get much. Each of them sacrifices the one thing of value that they have: Della sells her long, luxurious hair to buy a watch fob for Jim’s most prized article, his pocket watch. She worries that he won’t love her anymore now that her pretty hair is gone. Jim sells his grandfather’s gold watch to buy tortoise shell combs for Della’s beautiful hair. When they exchange gifts and discover they now have no need for each other’s presents, they could have argued. They could have thrown the gifts across the room, called each other names, stomped out in anger and disgust.

Instead, what happened? Della puts the pork chops in the frying pan and cooks dinner. They carry on, their love and sense of humor intact, knowing they gave the best they had materially to one another, but also knowing that the most important thing– being together– was still solid. Henry finishes the story with this statement:

“Here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest… They are the magi.”

This past year was one of the hardest of my life. Being diagnosed with stage four, terminal cancer changes a person’s outlook. The neat little formulas I have heard all of my life to give me comfort at such a time as this…..well, they were useless. They sucked. They made me angry. Sayings like, “Let go and let God.”, or “You don’t need to be afraid, because fear is a liar.” or “At least you’re not a young person and you had a chance to live a lot of life.”

These words were terribly….. uncomforting. First of all, I have faith in God. Just because I have faith doesn’t mean I understand or like my circumstances. It doesn’t mean that I am happy with being terribly ill or watching my husband’s and daughter’s hearts broken. Fear may be a liar sometimes, but really? In real life it is human and actually helpful to be fearful of some things. Fear was telling me the truth when the oncologist said, “You are terminal. You know what that means, right? It means you are dying.” And yes, I am no longer a young person; I am 65. Does that mean it hurts any less that I may not live to see my grandchildren? Does it mean that it is no big deal that my husband may be a widower?

I have said plenty of things to people in the past that I regretted later, so I am not holding any grudges over statements such as these. But if living through, and with, cancer has taught me anything, it has taught me that the formula statements people offer as a form of solace help about as much as a kick in the shins (which, after all, would help briefly because the pain on your shin makes you forget your current circumstances). I was looking for hope, but not the “formula” kind of hope that talks about not fearing death because heaven is so awesome, etc., etc. If I fear death it is because I’m not ready to leave the people I love here on earth yet. But I also know I will probably never be completely ready.

I have so many friends suffering right now. Friends who have buried their children. Friends who have buried their spouses. Friends who have terminal cancer, just as I do. The world has seemed so dark. Yet, in all of the darkness, there is love. It is the one thing that keeps me, and you, and all of us from being completely lost in this darkness. Early on in my diagnosis, I felt so physically bad that death seemed a better alternative than living. But here is the surprise: the most overwhelming feeling I experienced was love. The pain and misery was bad, but love won.

When I look at our culture and the divisiveness due to politics, religion, misinformation, disinformation, or whatever else people are shouting about, I keep thinking, “People! Don’t you know that when you are getting ready to die, you won’t be worried about who you voted for, or whose flag you flew on your fence, or how you ‘owned the libs’ or how you voted or how cute your house was decorated. You will be thinking about those people who love you most, people who were kind when they didn’t have to be, people who made your life worth living. So, if you have stopped having relationships with people who think differently than you, but have loved you your whole life, put the politics aside and LOVE THEM, for crying out loud.

One of the reasons “The Gift of the Magi” is timeless is that it reminds us that the gift is in the giving, not the receiving; that the intention behind the gift is more important than the gift itself, and that love really does conquer all. Even though it’s a cliché, it’s true. And in 2021, while we whine about the cost of gasoline and food while driving late model cars and eating out several meals a week, it would do us all some good to re-evaluate our lifestyles and focus on what is really important. Don’t be like me and wait until you have life altering circumstances like cancer to realize who you have in your life is way more important than material goods or which football team won . I truly received the gift of the magi this year, and it has changed my understanding in so many ways.

Lastly, honor the ones you love the most. I stole an idea from my currently favorite author, Kate Bowler, who said she made a sign for her husband after being told that, since she had terminal cancer, she needed to make a bucket list. I had this made for my sweet husband, who has sustained me through the tough season. This picture shows my take on her idea. Feel free to borrow it if you need to.

Merry Christmas to you all, and a Joyous New Year.

We Hold These Truths to Be Self Evident

Rittenhouse poses for a pic in a bar after his remote hearing.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave the most important, most famous speech of his life, the Gettysburg Address, as noted by Boston College historian and author Heather Cox Richardson.

On November 19, 2021, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges in the deaths of two men and the wounding of another.

The fact that these two events, though coincidental, share the same date is both unnerving and sad, because on the first date, Lincoln spoke of his concerns that a nation like ours “could long endure.” The fact that Kyle Rittenhouse killed two men and wounded another after breaking several laws makes me wonder how long this country can endure.

Rittenhouse is being hailed as a hero by lots of conservatives: three United States congressmen have now offered him an internship, even though I have never seen any evidence that Rittenhouse has any interest in being one. I have no real beef with the jury at his trial: they followed the judge’s instructions, which made the decision for conviction a very narrow one. In other words, the jury had to decide BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT that Rittenhouse was NOT acting in self defense, something that by itself is almost impossible to prove, given the situation Rittenhouse had put himself in. According to the letter of the law, Rittenhouse is not guilty. That doesn’t mean he is innocent.

According to the spirit of the law, Rittenhouse is guilty.

Here are some of the circumstances leading up to this whole tragic mess:

Rittenhouse was 17, and was breaking curfew by being at the protest.

Rittenhouse was carrying a weapon that was illegal for him to have since he was underaged.

Rittenhouse lied to someone who asked why he was there, pretending to be an EMT when he is in fact, not an EMT.

Rittenhouse lied when he said the owners of the car lots he supposedly decided on his own to defend asked him to do so.

The two men Rittenhouse killed were the only deaths that occurred during the protest in Kenosha.

There is more, but that is enough to help a person to decide that Rittenhouse had no business being there. And before you start arguing that he was trying to be helpful and to stop the people destroying property, I might need to remind you that we, both as a nation of laws and as ordinary citizens, are not supposed to be taking the law into our own hands. Vigilantism, or the act of enforcement without legal authority, is ILLEGAL.

A thousand or so miles away, three men are charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was out jogging. The three men claim they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest when things went very, very wrong. The murder charges would probably never have happened if a video proving that these men killed Arbery had never surfaced. Again, vigilantism caused people to die unnecessarily.

I am no legal expert, so forgive me if I am missing some of the finer legal details here. What is especially troubling in these situations is this: why do we want to have a culture where we lift up a 17-year-old, immature vigilante, who breaks several laws before killing people with a military style weapon and call him a hero? Why would law enforcement in Georgia turn their heads and ignore the killing of an unarmed black man until video evidence forces them to do something?

As a middle aged white woman (who has lived a relatively easy life as far as opportunity and support goes), I am not surprised that my black and brown friends feel like there are two legal systems in this country: one for white people who ignore every single common sense detail and decide to take the law into their own hands, and another for people of color.

If Kylie Rittenhouse had been a 17-year-old black man, Muslim, or Hispanic American at a Unite the Right protest, I would be willing to bet that person would be arrested the minute he showed up. No congressmen would be offering him an internship or extolling his virtues on Twitter.

Even though Rittenhouse was legally not an adult, I feel pretty certain he knew that his weapon could kill people and he was going to a place that was volatile and dangerous for anyone, much less someone who was walking around armed as he was. I am not saying those who were destroying property shouldn’t be arrested and charged with breaking the law; of course they should. Rittenhouse decided the police couldn’t handle the situation, so he was just there to “help.” Even though no one in authority asked him to. This sets a terribly dangerous precedent: if I or any other ordinary citizen that owns a gun decides law enforcement needs “help,” I just get to do it whether it’s legal or not?

Ninety minutes after he pled “Not Guilty” to the charges against him, Rittenhouse was photographed in a bar in Mt. Pleasant, Wisconsin, posing with self-proclaimed Proud Boys, flashing the White Power symbol, and wearing a tee shirt that said “Free as F___k.” Does this sound like the behavior of a hero, or the behavior of an immature boy who is drunk with the idea of his own power? (And even though he drank three beers at the bar and Wisconsin law says you must be 21 to drink in a bar, it is somehow legal to do so if a parent or guardian is present. Rittenhouse’s mother was there.)

We, as a country, must somehow change our culture so that violence and military style gun ownership isn’t glorified, where flashing the White Power sign is seen as totally unacceptable, and vigilantism is illegal.

Kyle Rittenhouse is guilty of a lot of things; maybe he isn’t guilty according to Wisconsin law, but he is definitely guilty of putting himself in a situation where he felt he had no choice but to use deadly force. All the laws he broke before he got to that point caused the deaths that happened that night. Something must change: maybe some of the laws should be rewritten, and maybe this is a wakeup call to our country that we are headed in a violent, dangerous direction.

We, the people of the United States, are guilty of allowing this culture of violence to get to this point. There is blood on our hands.

This Is Not a Drill

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

When I heard about books being pulled from shelves in some Texas communities, it took me back to my early teaching days. My junior English class was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the classic American novel by Mark Twain. One of my students of color, Janine, announced in class that she wasn’t going to read this piece of trash, because it had the “N” word in it. “It’s in there lots of times,” she said. “I know because I went through and marked them all out.”

Rather than addressing the defacing of the book, I chose to use Janine’s anger over the racist language in the book to generate some thoughtful discussion. We talked about the historical background of the novel, how people spoke and acted at that time, and the reason Twain wrote his dialogue in the actual vernacular of his characters. Up until this novel, no American writers had attempted to write dialogue the way it sounded coming out of people’s mouths. After some spirited discussion, students decided the “N” word was in the novel because the characters that used it would have thought it was fine at that point in time. In other words, it was historically accurate.

You may or may not know that Twain’s classic novel was on several banned books lists at one time. The setting of the book is in the 1830s or 40s along various parts of the Mississippi River, when slavery was at its peak in the South. The ongoing story of Jim’s escape from slavery, Huck and Jim’s friendship, and the slow and easy life on the river make for some interesting discussion. Even so, the book was removed from teaching lists in some schools as recently as 2015.

I detest the “N” word and do not like anyone to use it. At the same time, it makes sense that Twain would choose this word not because he was using it as a to be derogatory, but because his characters used it in everyday speech. Students reading the novel quickly figured out that the characters who used it were not admirable, or like Huck, didn’t understand why it was demeaning. Students also figured out that pretending the word wasn’t commonly used in the 19th century was basically lying. And even though Huck Finn is a pretty tough book to read because of the dialect, students still read it because they loved discussing the themes brought out in the novel. It was exciting as a teacher to listen to students figure out why certain things were the way they were on their own, with very little prompting from me.

When books are banned or major historical events are left out of the history books, we are telling students they have no critical thinking skills. We are doing the thinking for them, or worse, telling them that we must cover up the unsavory, horrendous acts in history in order to believe America is a great country. We are selling students short when we worry they might feel guilt about something that happened in the past, so we therefore should pretend like it never happened.

I grew up in Tulsa, yet never heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre until a few years ago. That is wrong on a lot of levels, but it is mainly wrong because we are promoting the lie of omission when we leave events such as this out of our history books. I took U.S. History in my sophomore year of high school, and as a fifteen year old, I would have been horrified to learn of this event, but no more horrified than I was to learn about the Holocaust. Being horrified didn’t crush me or make me feel embarrassed to be white, but it did make me want things like this to never, ever happen again. Keeping students ignorant of facts does not make them happy. It makes them handicapped. They cannot make informed decisions without knowledge of what really happened, and we stunt critical thinking skills by pre-empting details.

Some of the folks shouting the loudest about First Amendment rights are also shouting loudly about censoring books and history that they deem “unsuitable.” Censorship in any form is dangerous, and the fact that some of this desired censorship is described as “parental involvement” doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

We mustn’t accept censorship in any form. That doesn’t mean schools can’t use discretion on when certain things being taught are age appropriate, or give parents the option to ask for an alternate reading assignment if a novel seems inappropriate to them. But to have a blanket ban on historical facts or literature that has stood the test of time is reminiscent of the Nazi book burning days before World War II, when university students burned 25,000 books for being “un-German.” What kind of democracy are we if do things like this?

This is not a drill. Our democracy is in danger when we look at censorship as something desired, something normal.

Ave the Brave

Once in a great while, maybe even just once in a lifetime, a person comes along who totally changes your perspective, teaches you what matters, and gives you an example of what loving your fellow man is supposed to look like.

Avery Anderson was that person.

On the surface, Avery’s life seemed pretty ordinary: a small town girl with a sharp sense of humor who loved soccer, Bible journaling, helping with the children’s ministry at her church, and a pretty color of teal green.

But anyone who was acquainted with Avery knew she was far from ordinary. She affected her family, her school, her town, her state. She was known around the world.

She was the most pure embodiment of love for her fellow man that I have ever had the privilege of witnessing. No one who ever met Avery or heard her story walked away unchanged.

She made us better.

The day after the tragic accident that left Avery with a traumatic brain injury five years ago, the town of Ada, Oklahoma, began to mobilize. People started praying: some of them had never uttered a prayer in their lives. Someone donated money to a local convenience store to pay for customer’s drinks because they wanted to do something, anything to honor her. Pancake suppers to raise money were planned. Dodgeball tournaments, road races, fundraising dinners- there was no end to the events people were willing to support for Avery. Signs all across town that advertised daily specials now had one short, urgent message: Pray for Avery.

Then came the teal bracelets. Printed with one of her favorite Bible verses, Isaiah 6:8, with the hashtag #AvetheBrave, the bracelets were worn by people of all ages, races, and gender. People from all walks of life wanted to support her. A local boutique owner wanted to support Avery, approached her family with the idea, and soon these bracelets were spotted all over the United States as well as overseas. It was just one of many miracles generated by Avery’s love of people.

I have never seen Ada, Oklahoma, as united in a cause as it has been for Avery Anderson, and through her, the Anderson family. No one cared about her political leanings, what kind of grades she made in school, how wealthy or poor she was. People know the real thing when they see it or hear about it, and they couldn’t get enough Avery stories about how, even while she slept, her life continued to impact others exponentially.

My favorite images of Avery are of her interactions with children. Avery had a special place in her heart for the children of Haiti. Love simply oozed from her being when she was around them, and I never tire of looking at photos of her in her element.

Avery loved people, loved Jesus, and loved life. We will never know how many lives this precious girl touched, but she didn’t do it with money, with power, or with fame. She did it with love. That’s it.

The best way we can honor this beautiful girl’s life is by loving one another.

Let’s choose to put differences aside, treat each other with love and respect, and find joy in what matters, because if Avery’s life taught us anything, it is that tomorrow isn’t promised, and also that anyone can leave an indelible imprint on the world around them.

May her legacy live forever.

A Cautionary Tale

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” Big Chief, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The doctor examining my daughter was an old family friend. He did the things he would always do when she came in: listened to her heart through the stethoscope, looked down her throat, poked around on her abdomen since she had been feeling sick at her stomach for several days. He looked up at me, her mom, with a puzzled look on his face and asked, “Can we go ahead and do a urine test? Just to rule out a couple of things?”

“Sure!” I replied as Lindy sat up on the exam table. Dr. Evans handed her a cup, told her to go in the bathroom and what to do next. She listened, nodded, and obediently plodded out of the room. Dr. Evans looked at me a little oddly, and his next question stunned me.

“Does Lindy have a boyfriend?” he asked. I told him no, she is not even thirteen yet. She is a shy girl and barely talks to boys. I wondered why he asked. He left the room at the same time Lindy was returning.

Lindy was the type of girl most parents would love to have as a daughter: good student, quiet, cooperative, and pretty. She looked more like fifteen than twelve. I always totally ate up all the compliments people gave me when they saw her. Lindy had been looking a little pale for a few weeks and we couldn’t figure out why she kept getting nauseated and feeling so tired.

Dr. Evans returned to the exam room to face us, and this time had a stern look on his face. He turned to Lindy first and asked, “Young lady, are you sexually active?”

Totally astonished, Lindy replied, “No sir, why do you ask?”

“Because you are pregnant.”

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but the next thing I knew I was sitting on the floor of the exam room. I guess I fell; I don’t really know. All I knew was that what the doctor had said had to be wrong. Completely wrong. When I got up, I grabbed Lindy and told her we were leaving. She didn’t say a word and followed me. We walked out past the front desk without paying, and walked quickly to the car. When we were inside with the doors shut, Lindy began to explain.

At the end of the summer, she had attended a church retreat. She was pretty excited about it because she hadn’t gone with the older group of kids before. The last night of the retreat, she asked to stay behind because she was running fever and didn’t feel well. The youth pastor said it would be fine, and he would come check on her after awhile. The other students left while she dozed off in her bed. She was awaked to someone pulling back the covers: it was her youth minister, Kevin.

He put his finger up to his lips to signal quiet and told her this wouldn’t take too long. When she started to say something, he stuck a sock in her mouth and pinned her down. He whispered to her that if she told anyone about this he would deny it and tell them all what a whore she was. And he promised they would believe him, not her.

Then he raped her.

We went home that afternoon, and I told Lindy to tell no one about the conversation. I was in a quandary because we really had no choices. The retreat had been eight weeks ago; too late for an abortion in Texas. What twelve year old needs to have a baby? And who would believe that she was raped by, of all people, her youth minister? Our family would become outcasts. Her junior high and high school days would be hellish and she would be marked forever. My friends would desert me for sure. I could see no good way out of this mess.

The next morning, I was ready to resolve the situation. I could only see one way out. I told Lindy we were going for a drive to talk, and to please get in the car. It might not be the perfect solution, but it was definitely a way out that didn’t involve shame, hateful looks and judgment.

We were found the next morning at the bottom of a ravine, dead from our car going into a ravine and rolling over multiple times. At least no one had to find out what really happened.

When repressive laws are passed that put people in impossible situations, no one wins. The Texas abortion bill allows for no exceptions for incest or rape. It turns ordinary citizens into vigilantes. This is a fictional story, but it is still something that could definitely happen. There are many ways to improve abortion statistics: education, better contraception, access to health care- that don’t completely turn every horrible situation into criminal activity. If we want to slow down abortion, this isn’t the way to do it.